Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine is promoting a vision for eliminating poverty in First Nations communities. He recently spoke with Canadian Government Executive about this important social justice issue.
What is your vision for economic development in First Nation communities?
The big challenge these days for both Canada as a whole and First Nations is poverty – what do we do together to eliminate poverty in First Nations communities? We view First Nations’ poverty as the single most important social justice issue in Canada. It’s clear to us that we have to move away from the preoccupation with social programs, as important as those are, and begin to focus more of our efforts and attention on economic development. What we are suggesting is a more balanced approach to dealing with First Nation issues. It is pretty clear to us that wealth creation, jobs and business development are all very important considerations when we are talking about economic development.
All of these elements can best be achieved through partnerships and collaboration and it is best to work with those that have the know-how, experience, talent, skills and money – the business community and corporate sectors in Canada. For example, at the January 2007 National Aboriginal Economic Development Symposium in Saskatoon, we issued a corporate challenge and signed a Memorandum of Understanding in January 2007 with Bell Canada and Siemens Canada.
There are a number of First Nations communities that are quite small and many that are very remote. How are you dealing with this challenge?
One of the main reasons for the economic symposium in Saskatoon was to reach out beyond government to the business community, to invite the business community to join us in figuring out a better approach to dealing with poverty, economic development and wealth creation. And through this process, which involves dialogue, etc., we will be able to figure out together an investment strategy and a plan to take advantage of all investments that will be made in major development areas in Canada. We are informed that this will be in the order of $200 billion over the next 10 years; these are Industry Canada figures. We know that much of the development being considered is in our part of the world – in our lands and traditional territories. We already know because the Supreme Court of Canada has made this very clear. Before development takes place there must be meaningful consultations.
What are these opportunities? Well, there’s hydro development in northern Manitoba and northern Quebec. There’s mining in NWT, the proposed pipeline through NWT, Alaska, and the Yukon, the gateway pipeline through Alberta to the west coast, logging, etc. Much of it will take place on Indian lands and traditional territories. The 47 communities along the route of the gateway pipeline are not large communities. Osoyoos is one of the most successful communities. It’s not a large community but it is ideally located in the Okanagan Valley in BC and has strong leadership and is prepared to make good decisions. Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia has also been successful. Many northern Cree communities have excellent relationships involving the two levels of government and the private sector working together.
SixTech, a large Aboriginal information management company based in Ohsweken, Ontario, and Adobe, one of the world’s largest software companies, have forged a strategic alliance after months of discussions in which everyone saw a fit, a good track record, and a strong interest in partnerships. This just seemed to represent a mutually beneficial kind of partnership and I am confident that much will emerge from this relationship.
What are some of the key performance drivers or enablers for fulfilling your vision?
Strong leadership and community stability are certainly key ones. Success is very much dependent on the degree of control by the community; we have learned from past history that we can’t impose things from the outside; you cannot come in with all the answers and imposed approaches.
There also has to be a willingness on the part of the partners, a willingness to take risks and to set aside old ways of doing business. A paradigm shift is occurring in the way business is being done; Fort McMurray, Alberta is a good example.
You can be as creative as you can be, but if you don’t have the money, economic development becomes problematic. There are currently very few financial institutions that are prepared to provide the required capital. This will make it very difficult to achieve success. We have to figure out a more streamlined approach with real resources, significant resources that will finally enable us to turn the corner. The money available from the government has been reduced significantly, so how are we going to ensure that our people can take advantage of the development opportunities? Where are we going to go for capital when we need it? There has to be a more cooperative relationship between all levels of government and the private sector.
What are some of the strengths that First Nations communities can bring to such partnerships?
The relative youth of First Nations communities is a tremendous untapped resource. It’s a matter of ensuring that appropriate training opportunities are provided and innovative ways used to take full advantage of the job opportunities. The issue is: How do we create this highly skilled, very mobile workforce? A large percentage of the young available workers are in remote or semi-remote communities. So we have to figure out a way to train these people and ensure that they are able to move to job sites, for example, two weeks in and three weeks out.
The track record of First Nations business in the recent past is impressive; there’s no shortage of success stories. Twenty-five years ago, very few businesses were owned and managed by First Nations communities, but today there are over 20,000 businesses owned and managed by First Nations people. There are major success stories such as Millbrook – budgeting $75 million per year from $4.5 million a few years ago. There again, willing partnerships. You have the partnerships between the Crees of Quebec and major developers. There is Mnjikaning in Ontario and the Tribal Council investment group in Manitoba – willing partners coming together from different regions.
In Saskatchewan, you have an urban reserve located in Saskatoon. The Lac LaRonge Indian Band has been very successful, with Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in uranium mining exploration, in partnership with Grand River Enterprises (Six Nations). White Cap Dakota First Nation is expanding the Dakota Dunes Golf Course into casinos, generating significant revenues. These are big employers. In Alberta you have Fort McKay. In Squamish First Nation, in BC, there is incredible potential for 2010, and very successful logging operations out of Prince George. There is progress in the communications field, with our own radio networks, TV station, and newspapers owned by First Nations. There are dental clinics owned and managed by First Nations.
Are you concerned at all by on-reserve versus off-reserve issues?
First of all, we should base our perceptions on fact. For some time there has been this misconception of this incredible migration to urban communities; actually the opposite is true. The figures show that there are more First Nations on reserves, currently 61 percent. These are the federal gov